The flight of birds has long served as a poetic figure; Bachelard’s analysis of the “poetics of wings” is one manifestation of that tendency, as are both John Burroughs’ essay on “birds and poets” and a recent article in the popular press, entitled “Why are poets so fascinated with birds?” (Burroughs 1877; O’Riordan 2009). The research questions that guided this project asked: How might that poetic figuration need to change in response to the phenomenon of birdstrike? How has the aerial imagination been reshaped by modern air travel? What might an updated “poetics of wings” sound like?
As that last question implies, the research method I undertook involved working in audio. “The Pteropoetics of Birdstrike” thus makes a contribution to sonic studies primarily through its use of sound as a medium of research and publication as opposed to investigating a solely sonic phenomenon. The essay and audio that comprise this project are an example of audiography: criticism that takes audio form and uses sound as an essential component in the making of an argument. Audiographic work is related to the videographic essay, which expresses scholarly ideas about audiovisual texts via sounds and images, often working in tandem with a curatorial essay (Keathley and Mittell 2016). Catherine Grant characterizes videographic essays as a kind of “practice-led research” that uses a mode of argument forged through the “selection and juxtaposition” of audiovisual material (Grant 2018; see also Grant 2016). “The Pteropoetics of Birdstrike” operates through a similar strategy of selection and juxtaposition, using sound editing to forge surprising conceptual links, working through a technique of defamiliarization to generate new ways of thinking and feeling about aerial poetics.
One model for the project is the academic video-essay, but I am also influenced by a tradition of experimental documentary “radio features” heard on programs like the BBC’s “Between the Ears” and produced by radio artists like Glenn Gould, Piers Plowright, Gregory Whitehead, and Falling Tree Productions (Street 2012; Verma 2014). Alan Hall, the founder of Falling Tree, writes that “rather than being merely a platform for delivering information,” the radio feature occupies “a territory that lies somewhere between the concert hall and the cinema” and aims towards an expansion or “opening out” of the topic under consideration (Hall 2010: 101, 104). “The Pteropoetics of Birdstrike” can be understood, then, as an audiographic essay or scholarly radio feature that uses the juxtaposition of found sound to reaccentuate the poetic figuration of flight. This essay lays the conceptual foundation for the project, provides historical background on the problem of birdstrike, details the sonic elements that are heard in the audio piece, and presents some of the outcomes of this audiographic research method.
The spaces of air travel were famously characterized by Marc Augé as abstract, ephemeral “non-places” lacking in a sense of history or social relation (Augé 1995: 78-79). Recent work on mobility and infrastructure offers another perspective. For scholars of the “new mobilities paradigm,” air travel has been an important locus for the social and political analysis of movement, and they use the term “aeromobility” to describe air travel as the dominant mode of international travel (Adey et al. 2007: 774; see also Adey 2010: 8). Mimi Sheller and John Urry remind us that social regimes of mobility are made possible by “immobilities”; they are “always located and materialized” in the form of the technological and material infrastructures that organize the movement of people and goods (Sheller and Urry 2006: 210-1; see also Hannam, Sheller, and Urry 2006; Cresswell 2010). The seemingly liquid global flows of aeromobility are located and materialized at airports, where air travel is “moored” to an infrastructure on the ground. As Adey puts it, “both the ground and the air reside together in vertical reciprocity,” such that the airport extends into “both vertical and horizontal horizons” (Adey 2010: 2, 11).
The extended horizons of airport infrastructure create sites of contact and interaction between humans and the habitats of other species. On the horizontal horizon, airports are “terraformers,” often rising out of the sea “on massive purpose-built islands” (Fuller and Harley 2004: 102). Gillian Fuller and Ross Harley argue that airports “mix multiple forms of life,” creating “thresholds that enable disparate systems to meet each other”: “it is impossible to isolate any airport from the ecology of its environs” (Fuller and Harley 2004: 104-105; see also Parks 2016; Parks and Starosielski 2015). These new terraformed environments tend to be surrounded by habitats that are attractive to birds, such as wetlands, open fields, and coastal areas (Swaddle, Moseley, Hinders, and Smith 2016: 339-340; see also Bradbeer, Rosenquist, Christensen, and Fox 2017). On the vertical horizon, airports are a staging ground for human movement into the “aerosphere,” the part of the troposphere closest to the Earth’s surface, which is a habitat, a medium of movement, and a source of food for birds (Kunz et al. 2008; Chilson, Frick, Kelly, and Liechti 2017; Diel 2013).
Airports are a crossroads of human and avian aeromobilities, and birdstrikes are dramas of that shared space. Birdstrike is almost as old as the invention of powered flight. In September 1905, less than two years after the Wright brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk, Orville Wright recorded in his diary that his aircraft hit a bird over a cornfield in Ohio. Birdstrike was not a major issue during the first few decades of aviation, however, because early aircraft were noisy and slow enough that birds could usually avoid them, and the strikes that did occur resulted in little damage to the plane. By the postwar era, the situation had changed dramatically: modern aircraft were much faster; their jet engines tended to be more vulnerable to damage; and the rise of mass air travel meant that many more lives were at risk (Dolbeer 2013).
Birdstrike flashed into public awareness on 4 October 1960, when an Eastern Air Lines plane passed through a large flock of starlings shortly after takeoff from Boston. The birds damaged three of the aircraft’s four engines, and the plane crashed, killing sixty-two people, the highest number of fatalities for a bird-induced crash (Dolbeer 2013: 1-3). In the wake of this event, international organizations were formed to address the problem, but it persists to this day (Lambertucci, Shepard, and Wilson 2015; see also Thorpe 1998; Allan and Orosz 2001).Birdstrike was in the headlines again in 2009, when a US Airways flight from New York City hit a flock of Canada geese and lost engine power, making an emergency landing in the Hudson River (see Wrigley 2018).
The audio component of “The Pteropoetics of Birdstrike” conveys further information about birdstrike, but does so in a poetic mode through the techniques of audio editing. The accompanying image shows the audio piece as a project file in the editing platform Ableton and is offered as a visual guide to the work’s structure. You can see that the project consists of eight separate audio tracks, but these coalesce into four discrete “tracks” of sonic material.